Monday, February 27, 2012

On Marriage Equality

Two young women wearing bridal veils kissing amid what looks like a Pride March. Caption reads:
"Threat: Homosexuals in bridal veils kiss in the street. Such communions would jeopardise
the stability of our country."  
Taking a break from advocating welfare cuts on the grounds that their architect is a “Committed Christian”, former Archbishop of Canterbury, George Carey has offered his support to The Coalition for Marriage, a small, vague but vocal organisation which opposes equality in the marriage law for same sex and mixed sex couples. Writing in the Daily Mail last week, accompanied by chilling photograph of something which threatens the stability of our country (right), he explained about how marriage is the bedrock of society, but not because it increases the sum total of human happiness, brings families and communities together or because To love another person is to see the face of God.

No, of course not - it's because only certain people are forbidden from marrying the love of their life.

Throughout his article, Carey frequently refers to the general public as if it excludes both queer people and everyone else who supports marriage equality.  This got me riled.  Then it got me stewing. Now inevitably, a week later, I blog.

So to Carey's arguments:

1. Marriage is so very very old, you can't change anything about it.
"The honourable estate of matrimony precedes both the site and the church, and neither of these institutions have the right to redefine it in such a fundamental way."
Marriage has indeed been going on for a very long time, but is anything about it timeless? For most of history, marriage has been entirely informal or else formalised by a ritual particular to a small community. Legal marriages in England didn't require paperwork or a priest until the 18th century, after which point English romantics merely eloped to Gretna Green, Scotland being far less hung up on formality - up until 2006, two people could have married rights simply by having lived together, shared a surname and be treated as if married by their community.

Many marriages, throughout the world today as in our own history, are nothing like the traditional marriage that Lord Carey would recognise. Polygamy and polyandry aren't merely the far end of the slippery slope anti-egalitarians warn us about; they are also ancient traditions in various parts of the world. The practice of keeping a wife plus one or several concumbines is as commonplace throughout the Old Testament as it is in modern France. Various royal dynasties married brothers, sisters and the occasional rose bush.

Today, as throughout history, many men and women – but especially women – are forced into marriage entirely against their will and treated like property rather than willing partners. In some parts of the world today and in our own history, children are forced into marriage. Even in modern Britain, marriage is sometimes a form of sexual and domestic slavery, with defiance punished by imprisonment, violence and death.

Is all this a reason to chuck out marriage? Some think so. Does this defeat the idea that marriage has always been and thus must always be a willing, life long partnership between a man and a woman?  Definitely. Marriage has changed in far more dynamic ways that allowing people of the same gender to wed.  Treating men and women as equal parties within marriage strikes me as a far more radical change, which effected far greater numbers of people but failed to destroy the institution.

Meanwhile, within modern British culture, marriage has different meanings for different couples. I could speak to ten married couples I know and get ten different reasons for their getting married. These would include romantic reasons, pragmatic reasons around finance or immigration, religious or cultural reasons, reasons around family and children as well as marriage being a jolly good excuse for a party and a John Lewis gift list.

There's no way of enforcing any single ideal model of marriage. There's no way of enforcing even the fundamentals, which aren't, as the Coalition for Marriage would have it, about the contents of a couple's respective underwear, but things like mutual respect and love. But we know that most people enter into marriage because they believe it will make them and the people around them happy. Marriage equality merely provides the same opportunity to a greater number of people and their families.

So to the next argument:

2. Civil Partnership is Marriage by a different name so there's no need for change. 
“Civil partnerships were brought in to give same-sex couples  the rights that they said they  badly needed. These rights are  virtually identical to those of married couples.” 
If the language of marriage didn't matter, nobody would be trying to preserve that magic word for a certain group of people – the group Carey's coalition website describes as “the rest of us”.

For some people, the word marriage doesn't matter and for others, the word is highly problematic. I've known people who don't wish to get married because of the baggage that word carries with it. If it was completely opened up, I expect many thousands of same sex and mixed sex couples would opt to have a Civil Partnership rather than be married.

But out of all the same sex couples I know who have civil partnerships or are getting civil partnerships, the majority speak about marriage, about husbands and wives. Friends describe the great offence caused when they refer to their husband or wife and are corrected with, “Don't you mean Civil Partner?” People who prefer the terminology of “partner” have generally not got married. I really struggle to imagine someone introducing their spouse at a party with, “This is Rani, she's my Civil Partner.” It's an administrative term. It's a bit like introducing your adult child as “This is John, he's the Executor of my Will.”

3. Marriage Equality undermines Traditional Heterosexual Marriage. 

Although Carey doesn't really out-line why, the whole piece is supposed about how
"[Marriage Equality] threatens to fatally weaken what is still one of our country’s greatest strengths – the institution of marriage."
There are things which genuinely do undermine marriage. Mea culpa. I got married for all sorts of bad reasons, as well as misplaced love and way too much pragmatism. I talked about it as a piece of paper. When I blogged about it, I even posted a photo of Chamberlain waving his piece of paper. My marriage lasted only a few years longer than Chamberlain's peace, although, you know, I can't pretend my divorce was quite as involved as the 1939-45 conflict. He didn't have Legal Aid.

People who marry for money, for passports, for the meringue dress and the photo album, they undermine marriage. Celebrities and the occasional non-celebrity who seem to marry every casual boyfriend or girlfriend and divorce to marry someone new every few years undermine marriage. But those who really threaten the institution of marriage as most of us understand it? People who use other people in marriage, who force marriage on others, who use marriage to justify rape, violence and slavery. They exist in our culture. Those are the people we should all be crusading against.

Marriage equality promotes marriage. The desire that same sex couples have to get married demonstrates how highly the institution is regarded. When it becomes an institution that everyone has the opportunity to be part of, then it is bound to be regarded more highly. At the moment, it is tarnished for many mixed sex couples as a badge of straight privilege (which is, of course, the very thing some people wish to protect).

I don't know that marriage is the bedrock of society, but it brings people together, it brings families and social groups together. Weddings are lovely! They're not just fun, but they're deeply moving. I love weddings and I want more of my friends to be allowed to have them – I want to attend proper weddings in my friends' places of worship as well as registry offices and stately homes and the like. How is it that gay people can get married on a submarine and they can't get married in their own Church?

4. If we achieve Marriage Equality, people who are against it will not be able to express their views. 
 “We know what will happen, for we have already had a taste of it – it will encourage religious discrimination. A marriage registrar from Islington believed in traditional marriage, and was disciplined by her employers for it. The elderly owners of a B&B believed in traditional marriage, and were successfully sued for it. Numerous Roman Catholic adoption agencies believed in traditional marriage, and were closed down for it.” 
These slippery slopes are just everywhere you look, aren't they? A change in marriage law makes no difference to the existing anti-discrimination legislation, which has indeed proved problematic for people who want to exercise their prejudice in certain kinds of workplace.

What a change in law will do is make it less and less socially acceptable to air homophobic views. This is something that has been happening throughout my lifetime, but has steadily increased with every bit of legislation which has moved LGBT people towards a position of legal equality.

As soon as Civil Partnerships came into being, people who couldn't imagine how same sex couples could enter into something like marriage began to see that this was perfectly possible. People talk about the gay people in their lives more and with greater pride. Previously, a middle-aged conservative friend might refer to their son who has a (mumbled) boyfriend. But since she got to be mother-of-the-groom and buy a fancy hat, got to meet the boyfriend's family and they seemed so nice, and it was such a lovely day, such a moving ceremony and no small number of tears were shed, now, she has a son who lives with her husband. A wedding is one day of your life, but it is a day can change lives (it doesn't have to, some people's don't want that, but it can).

And when non-political straight people are prepared to refer casually about their gay family member's husband as a son-in-law, grandson-in-law, brother-in-law, uncle, stepfather or whatever, then it becomes much more difficult for people around them to use slurs, tell revolting jokes, talk about the gays taking over and similar nonsense. But that's not a freedom of speech issue. It's an advance in our civilisation.


Louna said...

I liked your post, but there's a little detail you might want to correct: I spent most of my life living in France, and never heard of the practice of keeping a wife and several concubines there. Are you sure that was the country you meant?

The Goldfish said...

Thanks Louna,

Sorry, that was a rather silly joke - in Britain when we watch French TV shows like Spiral (Engrenages), the practice of being married and having a mistress or two, especially among high-ranking political or police officials, seems de rigueur. Of course, we know France isn't really like that, just as Britain is not like Downton Abbey. Hope I have not caused any offence.